Just Call Me Jim

During the Second Vatican Council, I was called into a priest’s quarters in the seminary and during our conversation he suggested that perhaps he should just be called Jim rather than Fr. Jim, as I had known him in our parish. Even then, I politely declined. It just seemed odd somehow.

After the Council, this wish not to be called Father became quite common, and by then I found this whole business to be troubling. I sort of intuitively saw this as somehow undermining the Sacrament of Baptism. Now, this may well seem like a quantum leap in theo-logic, but let me explain because today I’m firmly convinced that my intuition was quite well grounded.

When we call a priest “Father,” or the pope “Holy Father,” is this just a matter of religious politeness or tradition, or does this form of address have its roots deep within the spiritual order of reality? I remember the latter was the common explanation given when someone questioned this form of address in light of Christ’s admonition to call no one in this world your father.

It’s not sufficient to address this problem by simply saying that Christ was just using such language to emphasize that our true father is His Heavenly Father. But that just raises another question: in what sense is God truly our Father, and yet another question, does God become truly our Father at birth or by the power of baptism?

The Tradition teaches that we truly become God’s children by adoption and only by baptism, and thus God becomes truly our Father only in baptism, by virtue of our insertion into Christ, who alone is God’s natural Son. Christ is the “only-begotten” Son, as we now pray in the liturgy, but not the “only” Son, since baptism is the instrument by which the Father makes us His sons in Christ, the Only-begotten. All of this takes place in reality, in the order of Grace.

It has always made perfect sense to me that the Sacrament of Baptism brings about an ontological change, a transformation that is real not merely metaphorical or symbolic. That’s what is quite different about the true Catholic doctrine of baptism – its ontological character – as compared with Protestant doctrine where baptism is reduced to pure symbol, testifying to saving faith.

Thus God who is symbolically father before baptism, father of all men, becomes Father in a different and more profoundly real sense in baptism. The Protestant world jettisoned sound metaphysics, and it was thus left with a sacramentology that could not differentiate itself from the mere symbolism of the sacred signs of the Old Testament.

Today, due to the implicit universalism that seems to dominate theology everywhere, baptism – and the sacramental order – has gradually lost its ontological grounding even among Catholics and so we are left with mere symbolism, a discussion of linguistics rather than an ontological spiritual reality.

Call him Francis: pope welcomes Muslims to Rome
Call him Francis: pope welcomes Muslims to Rome

Pope Benedict has recently written about the loss of missionary zeal, and the motivating factor of the necessity of baptism that drove men like St. Francis Xavier. He asserted most recently in an interview certain problems not only for this missionary motivation but also for the Christian life in general due to the fact that “the man of today has in a very general way the sense that God cannot let most of humanity be damned.

In this sense, the concern for the personal salvation of souls typical of past times has for the most part disappeared.” In his theological speculation here, he admits that it is only preliminary for addressing what he calls a “double crisis” for the faith.

Well, one might suggest that at the root of this “double crisis” is the whole problem of a systematic theology that has abandoned any ontological grounding. And this can be seen nowhere more clearly, perhaps, than in this very problem of our understanding of baptism and its necessity for salvation.

I believe one can approach this problem most directly by asking one simple question: Does baptism make God one’s Father in a very real and different sense than can be derived solely from a proper understanding of Creation?

If the answer is no, not really, then there is a very real need to explain just why baptism is important, let alone necessary. If God’s universal salvific will, which has always been understood conditionally in Catholic doctrine, is sufficient to explain his fatherhood, and baptism merely confirms that reality symbolically, then we indeed have a radically different faith than that of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. I would say that is the real crisis of faith today.

Now, the other day Pope Francis was asked why he did not choose to bring back Christian families from Greece. He replied that the Christians did not have their documents in order, and then added this rather interesting comment, “It is not a privilege. All twelve are children of God. The privilege [is being] children of God.”

I agree, partly, but then I ask myself, is it a greater reality and privilege, to be a baptized child of God than simply being a child of God by virtue of one’s creation? If not, why bother with baptism?

I am not suggesting that the pope actually intended this kind of troublesome interpretation, but I honestly wonder if the Christians left behind in the camps, where they are sometimes undergoing a second persecution, will perhaps have trouble understanding the appellation of “Father” as anything more than an honorary title. Some, at least, may well wonder if their baptism has really created a true ontological relation with a spiritual paternity that is incarnated sacramentally in the man of Holy Orders, but is ultimately found in The Father.

Otherwise, maybe my old priest mentor was right, and I should have just called him Jim.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon (1943-2018) was a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA. He received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He was a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.